Q&A: Sy Smith – Standing For Something

When listening to Sy Smith’s music one can tell a great deal of thought is applied to each song. The soul-singing musician and songwriter likely creates these mind-stirring gems in her sleep, singing them effortlessly the moment she’s awake. Does she apply the same dreamy zeal to her eye-catching hairstyles? “I usually pick hairstyles I don’t have to do much to when I wake up in the morning,” says the critically acclaimed New York native, laughing.

A graduate of Howard University, Smith’s tunes are consistently packed with grad-level life lessons; her passionately written lyrics compliment her vocal profession of real feelings. These tunes, like her hair, command attention. Admittedly, Sy Smith puts a bit more time into one than the other.

Soul Train: Sy, who has the better afro–you or Questlove?

Sy Smith: You know, I think my afro is pretty outstanding. My mom always told me to be confident about myself, so I’m going to say I have the better ‘fro.

Soul Train: Do you think either of you rank on The All-time Greatest Afros list?

Sy Smith: Umm…yeah I do, but it’s some good people on that list! I think Angela Davis might have had one of the most righteous afros ever!  Stevie Wonder had a pretty righteous afro too; so did Phillip Bailey. Everybody in Earth, Wind & Fire had a really good afro! (laughs)

Soul Train: On that list Earth, Wind & Fire counts as one. (laughs) Were does Don Cornelius rank?

Sy Smith: I might just, out of respect, put him at #1.

Soul Train: I’ve seen a number of performance pictures of you, Sy, that remind me of Diana Ross – hair and all.

Sy Smith: Oh, wow!  I appreciate that. She’s one of my all-time favorites. There’s no escaping I was, and continue to be, influenced by her.

Soul Train: Each of those people we’ve mentioned, their hair represents something. What does yours represent?

Sy Smith: I don’t know if my hair represents anything because of the fact I change it so much. It might represent how I’m never quite comfortable with where I am. I always want to go somewhere else, so that’s why I’m always changing my do up. I don’t like being stagnant.

Soul Train: There was a time when, cross-culturally, hair was representative of more than just style or personal preference. Do you think that’s completely changed?

Sy Smith: Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily changed, but I do feel that someone wearing their hair naturally is seen as someone making a political statement. And that’s an unfair assumption sometimes. My hair grows out my head like an afro, so I wear it like that sometimes.

Soul Train: Okay, name someone you think makes a statement.

Sy Smith: I think Grace Jones is constantly making statements with everything about herself, her stature, her daring, her nerve to have nerve. She’s a constant.

Soul Train: Sy, what can someone learn by simply looking at you?

Sy Smith: Hmmm…By looking at a photograph they’ll learn I care about myself first, that way I can care about everybody else. You kind of have to care about yourself first to be able to love and care about others. When they see me in person they learn I try to be a lady at all times. As I grow and mature I’m really starting to enjoy and appreciate being a lady. When I was a girl I was kind of a tomboy; I relished being on the playground with a football. I didn’t really see the point of girlihood. As a woman…I totally see the point!

Soul Train: Explain how you’re advancing their education on you once you start to sing for them.

Sy Smith: Wow…Your questions are off the meat rack!  Everyone’s interpretation of music is so subjective. I hope to think that folks who are paying attention to my lyrics have a couple of different interests – both metaphorically and literally – when it comes to things I’m talking about. I would hope they’re able to apply those metaphors to things going on in their own lives. I think the application of metaphors is some of the best education you can get! The ability to play with words and make language work for you is an incredible thing once you take advantage of that.

Soul Train: So how do you feel about taking advantage of the vocal tone?

Sy Smith: I try to approach it in a different way than might be typically heard in the genre I’m usually considered in. I try to approach it with a different use of the scale and other things I’ve learned from other genres of music I’ve heard. I wasn’t always a singer; I was a pianist first. I think I’ve applied a lot of my classical piano playing into what I do vocally.

Soul Train: Hair starts out small then gradually grows as much as you’ll let it. I’ve noticed that about your music: you enter a song small then gradually swell to an impacting, larger vocal finale. Was that something you were taught or is that just how it naturally happens?

Sy Smith: That’s interesting that you bring that up! And I am aware that I do that.  No, it’s not something I was taught. I read a whole lot. I read all the time; I’m almost obsessive! If I don’t have a book when I’m headed to the airport, I will turnaround, come home and get my book. Or now, my Kindle. With books there’s a gradual build to that climax. Normally a book doesn’t start out with that big moment. And when it does the back story is told. I love the build – it’s the payoff for me. I like the climb more than the apex.

Soul Train: Sy, what has been the most hair-raising experience of your personal and professional life?

Sy Smith: Some years ago I was in New Orleans and my song “Gladly” was getting major radio play there, and I had to play this radio show with Ghetto Twiinz! (laughs) Then here I come with my afro, my boots and leather sox, and something else crazy on. People in the audience had on gators and their suits; it was like the Players Ball! I get up there with my band, which was three white dudes! I got done with my first two songs, and the audience was looking at me like, “If this heifer don’t hurry up and sing ‘Gladly’…!” That was a pretty hair-raising experience! Even though the audience was being impatient they started to get into what I was doing a little bit.

Soul Train: Sounds like they appreciated the build.

Sy Smith: Exactly!

Soul Train: So what has been personally hair-raising?

Sy Smith: I guess hair-raising can also be a good thing. When my husband proposed to me in Rome, my hair raised – albeit for a much more pleasant reason.

Soul Train: Sy, have any of your experiences translated into the types of hair-raising songs, for your fans, you expected them to be?

Sy Smith: Hmmm…There’s always periods in everybody’s lives when they get down about life. I’m usually a pretty bright and optimistic person, but every now and then I can get dark. During one of these periods I wrote a song called “Greatest Weapon of All Time”. It was really a song to get myself out of that darkness and pick myself up. I didn’t know at the time those words would mean so much to people. There was this girl in Brazil who had the lyrics from the hook tattooed on herself.  She took a picture of it and sent it to Zo! The lyrics: “Don’t ever underestimate the power of your mind because it might be the greatest weapon of all time; don’t ever underestimate the power of your heart and soul because they might write the greatest love story that’s ever been told.” English was not even her first language, but that was still so poignant to her! THAT was hair-raising in a wonderful way!

For more on Sy Smith visit her official website SySmith.com, or reach out to her on Twitter @Syberspace.

–Mr. Joe Walker

Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, is an acclaimed entertainment and news journalist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Former Editor In Chief of both XPOZ Magazine and The Underwire Interactive Magazine, his work has graced the pages and covers of Hear/Say Now Magazine, Notion Magazine, Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, MLive.com, and AllHipHop.com. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker.  Also visit TheGrooveSpt.com and ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.

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